At an event in Florida last week, former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Marco Rubio told a crowd:

This race is not your traditional race. It is a referendum on our identity. This race forces us to answer a very simple question: Do we want our country to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared for it to become just like everybody else?

The debate on American exceptionalism has garnered widespread attention this season. It has been a Tea Party rallying cry and an object of liberals’ sneers. But what is American exceptionalism?

In this week’s Heritage in Focus podcast, Matthew Spalding explains that America is different because it is founded on self-evident principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and secured in the Constitution. These principles include the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right to free speech and freedom of religion. America still holds this beacon of liberty among the nations of the world, even as Progressives deride such a claim as chauvinistic – a complaint they are free to make thanks to America’s unrivalled speech protections (to receive regular updates on Heritage podcasts, visit us on iTunes or subscribe to our RSS feed).

As President Obama replaces his national security advisor, proposes new plans to overhaul the economy, and tackles the implementation of his new health care laws, he too will be faced with questions of what the American republic is made of, and what makes it unique, a leader among nations.

In Europe, national economies are crushing entitlement burdens. America now faces the choice between free markets and public sector-driven redistributionist policies.

In China this week, government censors will undoubtedly rip the pages out of newspapers celebrating the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. In America, the lively debate that fuels democracy is kept alive by freedom of speech for as long as its citizens recognize and protect that freedom.

And now, with rising threats from Iran, North Korea, and other enemies of democracy and freedom, President Obama should reflect on his own words, from his speech after accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009:

…the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions – not just treaties and declarations – that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.

These are rousing words in defense of American exceptionalism on the international stage, words which President Obama has still failed to live up to, as The Heritage Foundation’s analysis of the Obama Doctrine shows. It is the spirit and defense of American exceptionalism that should animate voters and policymakers as our country enters a turbulent time of international conflict and domestic hardship.